How media businesses can fight the spread of fake news

It’s hard to believe that ‘fake news’ didn’t really exist as a term until a year ago. The accelerated pace of controversies and outrages that has driven the conversation around media bias has had such an impact that the term has now entered the Chambers dictionary.

In fact, it was only when politicians seized upon the term in November of last year that the term entered public consciousness with its current, woolly definition of ‘news that I don’t believe’. Prior to that, it was a specific if vague industry term referring to emotive misinformation created by scammers to game the algorithms that powered Facebook and Google to generate ad revenue.

Now though, the term is out there, for good or ill. A recent Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report found that most people surveyed were at least aware of the term ‘fake news’ and its negative connotations. It also suggested that the term was able to enter the public lexicon so easily due to the ongoing trust issue people have in the mainstream media – and might in fact exacerbate it.

Speaking at The Truth Spectrum, an industry summit based solely around the ‘fake news’ problem, Quartz’s Global Finance and Economics Editor Jason Karaian said:

“Fake news spreads because it’s very effective, it appeals to emotion and not reason”.

That was reiterated by Alastair Reid, social media journalist at the Press Association, who noted that misinformation of the ‘fake news’ variety spreads so well on social platforms because of a twisted symbiotic relationship with the platforms themselves:

“It’s a lot to do with why social media is so popular. A lot of the way social media works is in connecting people who share similar views with emotive content. The way misinformation works is so effective… we naturally and instinctively trust people we know rather than those we don’t.

“Anyone with an internet connection can say anything and if it strikes an emotional chord they can expand that audience exponentially. With so many sources of information, people don’t know which to trust.”

Reid referred to this erosion of trust as an epistemic crisis, one which it’s actually in the platforms’ interests to foster due to their core appeal being built around the sharing of undifferentiated content.

So how can publishers, platforms and other concerned citizens begin to combat the spread of this misinformation? Reid suggested retiring the term ‘fake news’ when discussing the issue – a drum I’ve also been banging for a few months – since it lends legitimacy to its use by the politicians and other powerful bodies who have made mistrust of the media one of their core columns.

Another speaker, Tracey Brown OBE, director of Sense about Science, noted that the misinformation epidemic is something science publications have been grappling with for years, around climate change denial and vaccine scares. She says that any steps back towards normalcy need to start by treating the general public as intelligent adults:

“People say you can’t change people’s minds. They say everything’s polarised, quite tribal. They say the public doesn’t care anyway, so what’s the point.

 “Last year everyone said ‘this is the year of post-truth’. You’ve got this meme developing that we are all in these bubbles… we can start to look upon the public as being relatively close-minded.“

But relying on people to poke their heads out from their filter bubbles is a challenge – not least because often people don’t realise they exist in one. Dhruv Ghulati, CEO of Factmata, a start-up funded by Google’s Digital News Initiative, argues that machine learning can enable the creation of a quality metric for news content:

“We’re trying to build out a quality score for information. The reason that we have junk in our news feeds is that machines don’t know how to assess quality.”

Media analyst Frederic Filloux is currently engaged in a similar effort, called the News Quality Scoring Project. Both the NQSP and Factmata’s aim is to disrupt the fiscal incentive for creating misinformation in the first place by creating a means of differentiating ‘quality’ content from the emotive falsehoods that comprise much ‘fake news’.

Depressingly, all of these initiatives, if there are to bear any fruit at all, will take an enormous amount of time to show impact. In the short-term, then, media companies and those worried about the epidemic of misinformation should stop feeding the beast by using the term ‘fake news’ entirely. Instead, protect the value of the news ecosystem by calling it what it is – outright misinformation.

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog. 


Header image via Marco Verch via Flickr.